Dame Ngaio Marsh
(ca. 1895 - 1982) was a New Zealand crime novelist and theatre director best known for her novels featuring Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the CID.
Edith Ngaio Marsh was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in about 1895, the distant descendant of pirates on both sides of her family. Her parents didn't bother to register her birth for five years and by the time they did they'd forgotten the actual date
; she celebrated it on April 23, the traditional birthdate of William Shakespeare
. She lived for the theatre and was almost singlehandedly responsible for the revival of theatre in New Zealand; in fact, she was so instrumental that she was knighted
(she called the honour her "damery"). Many of her novels are set in or around the London theatre scene.
She never married or had children, and her extraordinary reticence about her private life has fuelled rumours that she was a lesbian. She may have instead been asexual
Most of Marsh's novels are set in England. Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the CID is the younger son of a baronet
and was originally destined for the Diplomatic Service, but he chose instead to join the police to his family's dismay. (Marsh, who as a New Zealander was well outside the English class system, found it great fun to put a proper English aristocrat into a job normally considered working class.) He's assisted through the series by Detective-Inspectors Fox (called "Brer Fox" by Alleyn), Thompson, and Bailey. In earlier cases his Watson
is Nigel Bathgate, a journalist and friend of his from Oxford, but after his marriage to painter Agatha Troy she takes over the role.
Four of her novels are set at least in part in New Zealand, while many others feature characters originally from there. Her descriptions of New Zealand (and especially of the South Island) are lyrically haunting and some of the best prose in detective fiction.
Marsh often brings back characters unexpectedly years later, especially if their first appearance was as a child. Lord Michael Lamprey, for instance, first shows up as a twelve-year-old boy who meets Alleyn during the investigation of his uncle's murder; ten years later he's a police constable attached to the CID.
She was considered one of the Big Four mystery writers, along with Agatha Christie
, Dorothy L. Sayers
, and Margery Allingham
. She had cordial relations with Christie and Allingham but loathed Sayers, and was one of the most vehement proponents of the cruel rumour that Sayers was a pathetic, dried-up old biddy who created Harriet Vane as an Author Avatar
because she had fallen in love with Lord Peter Wimsey
. Strangely, Marsh herself created a large number of Author Avatars, most of whom managed to fall in love by the last chapter, but hers were never quite as memorable as Vane.
Her books tend to be freer of racism and anti-Semitism than those of the other Big Four although some could be considered homophobic. One of the reasons she disliked Sayers was because of Sayers's casual, unthinking bigotry; another was her fervent religiosity.
A bit of a victim of the Its Pronounced Tropay
trope. Her name is pronounced NYE-oh. (BTW, that's a species of tree native to New Zealand.)
Marsh's novels provide examples of:
- Always Murder
- Author Avatar: many of her novels feature a young outsider (often female, and often from New Zealand) who is confronted with a cast of eccentric, class-obsessed English, one of whom has committed a murder. Critics believe this character is an Author Avatar of Marsh as a young woman.
- Bowdlerise: her books were popular in Russian translation, but the translators took some liberties. In The Nursing Home Murder, one of the red herrings relates to threats by Stalinists. In the Russian translation, they're Zionists. The original doesn't even mention Judaism.
- Camp Gay: Ned Hanley in Photo Finish, who is shown as dependable and trustworthy despite other characters putting him down at every opportunity. He does make a subtle move on Alleyn, though. Other gay characters, for example Dennis in 'Singing in the Shrouds' and Claude and Lionel in 'Death in Ecstasy' are treated as distasteful at best. There is some improvement over the years; the household staff of "oncers" in Tied Up in Tinsel (1972) includes a convicted homosexual who attacked a cruel jailer, and Alleyn treats him sympathetically.
- Collapsed Mid Speech: In The Nursing Home Murder, an ailing and unpopular Prime Minister collapses while speaking in the House of Commons. He's sent to a private hospital for an emergency appendectomy, but doesn't survive the procedure.
- Everybody Smokes: an especially early example. Characters in her earlier works generally see smoking as a positive character trait; Alleyn reflects in The Nursing Home Murder that the only sign of humanity in the deceased's wife is the fact that she smokes. Characters in her later books (past 1965 or so) are more likely to have just quit smoking, possibly because Marsh herself quit shortly after the US Surgeon General's report was issued.
- Genteel Interbellum Setting: affects nearly all her books set in England, possibly because she had lived there in the pre-war period and had little idea of how it had changed since. English characters in her books set in New Zealand also tend to have Thirties mannerisms and attitudes well into the 1970s.
- Gentleman Snarker: Alleyn is the son of a baronet and had been raised to become a member of the diplomatic service. His family was deeply disappointed, as the police service was not a gentleman's profession.
- Hysterical Woman: in Overture to Death two major characters are hysterical, shrill, thoroughly unpleasant middle-aged harpies. One of the biddies is the murderer, the other is the victim.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed:
- Miss Idris Campanula and Miss Eleanor Prentice in Overture to Death are both vicious caricatures of Dorothy L. Sayers. Eleanor Prentice is a passive-aggressive, sex-hating, shrewish, bitter harpy who literally cannot control herself when she hears the ringing of church bells and is driven to madness by the possibility that she might miss Sunday service. Idris Campanula is a vicious, screeching tartar who tries to control people with money. Even their names are allusions: "Campanula" means "bell ringer" and is an allusion to Sayers's The Nine Tailors, while Miss Prentice of the Hall is a reference to Prentice-Hall, Sayers's publisher.
- Isabella Sommita in Photo Finish is based on Maria Callas, while Marco is based on the paparazzo Ron Galella.
- Sir Derek O'Callaghan in The Nursing Home Murder is a caricature of Anthony Eden.
- She based many of the characters in her theatre novels on actors she knew.
- Non-Idle Rich: Alleyn himself was a working police officer. Later, Lord Michael Lamprey asks to join the force in the short story "I Can Find My Way Out", and his assists Alleyn as a constable in Opening Night (American title Night at the Vulcan).
- Not-So-Fake Prop Weapon: done straight in Enter a Murderer, and then sneakily subverted in Swing Brother Swing.
- Public Secret Message: In Death in a White Tie, one partner in a blackmail scheme sends a coded message to his accomplice via a personal advert in a newspaper: "Childie Darling. Living in exile. Longing. Only want Daughter. Daddy." Taking the first letter of each word yields C.D. Lie low. D.D. [To]Columbo Dimitri Lie low. [signed] Daniel Davidson.
- Recurring Character: the only character who shows up in every book is Alleyn. All other characters are recurring, but some recur more often than others.
- Scotland Yard: Alleyn is part of CID (first Detective Inspector, later Detective Chief Inspector, later still Chief Superintendent), and is often shown deferring to the local police when confronted by crime. The locals seem to be happy to have him, especially since they often have manpower shortages (due to the volume of work and/or illness).
- Sex Is Evil: Miss Prentice in Overture to Death, who goes absolutely batshit lunatic insane when she sees two people kissing despite herself being madly obsessed by the local rector.
- Smith of the Yard: Early works have characters refer to him as "Handsome Alleyn" and comment on his fame, which he finds irritating. He will sometimes mention his frustration when talking to Nigel Bathgate, a journalist and occasional sidekick in the early books.
- The Vicar: many of whom are ineffective, weak puppets.
- The Watson: earlier Nigel Bathgate, later on Agatha Troy.
- You Just Told Me: Alleyn uses this in Death in Ecstacy. He lampshades himself while doing it, commenting that it's a pretty cliche line in detective stories.